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Updated: June 12th, 2010 5:55pm
Pelissero: Age, injury not lowering expectations for Antoine Winfield

Pelissero: Age, injury not lowering expectations for Antoine Winfield

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When it comes to his expectations for veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, Leslie Frazier is unequivocal.

"I'm expecting another Pro Bowl season," the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator said between minicamp practices on Saturday.

"He knows how I feel, and that's what he wants as well. He's so, so important in what we do on defense, and I'm looking forward to him having a great year."

Does Winfield have a great year left in him?

That's hard to say -- especially coming off a season in which Winfield missed six games with a broken right foot and and returned for the stretch run on 1½ legs.

He turns 33 this month, he's battled injuries two of the past three seasons, and the Vikings have no illusions about him reemerging as one of the NFL's elite players.

But scouts still view Winfield as a solid outside corner with the versatility to play the slot, and his ability to return to a high performance level is crucial for a Vikings defense that has plenty more questions on the opposite side.

An executive in personnel for an AFC team said this week he'd rank Winfield -- whose reputation gave him a second straight Pro Bowl nod last year after Arizona's Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie dropped out -- as a top-20 corner but no longer would put him in the NFL's top 10.

"At this stage of Winfield's career," the executive said, "especially off the injury, now is where you're watching for any potential areas of decline or depreciation at any level of his skillset, because it's only natural at this stage in that profession -- the human body just can't keep up to what it used to be doing."

The foot problem surely made Winfield's decline seem more dramatic last season.

He admitted on Saturday he was only "70, 75 percent" recovered from the injury by the NFC championship loss at New Orleans and couldn't do any weightlifting or running after he returned.

"Late third, fourth quarters," Winfield said, "my legs were completely gone."

In February, he visited renowned North Carolina foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson, who told him to rest and take an inflammation shot if pain persisted. Once he got the shot, Winfield said, he was back to normal and started doing football drills again in Houston around May 1.

Asked if he believes he can meet the expectations Frazier laid out, Winfield said, "Absolutely. I won't get out there unless I'm at my best. I didn't like the way last year ended, so of course, I'm going to put myself in position to come out there and have a great year. I expect to go back to the Pro Bowl this year."

He's being paid like someone who belongs there, thanks to the new five-year contract the Vikings gave him last July. His base salary this season is $6.5 million, with annual raises of $250,000 scheduled through 2013 plus $250,000 escalators for each year he makes the Pro Bowl.

While Winfield dismissed the idea of eventually moving to safety -- a position he hasn't played since high school -- he acknowledged he likely has only another year or two left as an outside corner before he moves into the slot full time.

The Vikings have been preparing for that inevitability. In the past 16 months, they've used high draft picks on Asher Allen and Chris Cook, re-signed Cedric Griffin to a long-term deal and brought in veteran Lito Sheppard as insurance not only for Griffin's recovery from ACL reconstruction, but Winfield's age and health as well.

The question is not if Winfield will decline substantially, but when -- even if he's confident it won't happen in 2010.

"I still think he's a good NFL starter," the AFC executive said. "It's just now you have to watch him now on a week-to-week, quarterly basis through a year to see if he's retaining those skills."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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